8 years 6 months ago - 8 years 6 months ago#2by Cooldown
At the end of August 2008 my girlfriend and I planned to go to Beijing to learn Chinese. We thought it it would be difficult to organise everything by ourselves, so we put our trust into a Dutch organisation called Confucius Programs, run by Marco van der Putten and his father Jan van der Putten. We decided to take the language and culture program at the Institute of Chinese Studies (ICS), also run by Marco and Jan, and chose to live in a 1-bedroom apartment. After only one week in Beijing we found out Confucius Programs completely ripped us of. We also discovered they’ve lied to us several times in their e-mails and that they continue to put false information on their website. Both my girlfriend and I have worked really hard to pay for our trip, only to discover that with the same amount of money we paid Confucius Programs we could have easily lived and studied in Beijing for about twice as long. This blog is our personal opinion about this organisation and merely serves as a warning to those students who are thinking of travelling with Confucius Programs.
“We want you to go to China for the cheapest price possible, while making sure that your basic needs are covered. Confucius Programs does not charge you extra fees on the university tuition or accommodation fee.” (website Confucius Programs: fees)
First of all, Beijing is a great city with many great opportunities for foreign students. If you’re interested in studying Chinese or Chinese culture, have no doubts, just go to Beijing and find out for yourself. But of course, as many other people, we didn’t know much about Beijing, how to arrange our stay there and how expensive everything would be. So we did some searching on the internet and found a Dutch organisation called Confucius Programs. As the quote on their website says: “Confucius Programs wants you to go for the cheapest price possible”. Later during a meeting they told us they consider themselves a non-profit organisation. Of course, we figured they have employees to pay and they have to make some profit, so the prices are probably a bit higher than the real amount. But that didn’t matter to us, as long as we received a good service and had a good organisation that we could trust and fall back on. In the following paragraphs I will go through all the services Confucius Programs have to offer and our experiences with these services.
Most students prefer to live in an apartment, as did we. Most of the information on the Confucius Programs’ website about the apartments is true. We lived near the school in a very lively area with many small shops and restaurants. We really loved to live in this area. However, the price Confucius Programs charges their students for these apartments are completely out of proportion and most of the apartments need some serious fixing.
These were the problems with our apartment: the washing machine was broken (even after someone sent by Confucius Programs tried to fix it), there was a big hole in our wall so cold air could easily come in, we had to buy some furniture ourselves, some lights didn’t work, the apartment wasn’t clean when we moved in, there were stains on the wall and we always had cockroaches.
Problems we heard of from other people travelling with Confucius Programs: somebody first had to share an apartment with another student although he paid for a 2-bedroom apartment for his own, there were many problems with the washing machines, none of the apartments had a dvd-player (although promised on the Confucius Programs’ website), most kitchens needed repairing, some kitchens only had one small cupboard, a refrigerator but no sink (the dishes had to be done in the shower), in one apartment there was a bad smell all the time, a windown was broken and most apartments had cockroaches.
Besides the problems mentioned above, most people actually enjoyed living in these apartments. They are pretty close to the school and in a lively neighbourhood. However, we found out these apartments weren’t nearly as expensive as Confucius Programs said they were. Next is our story concerning the prices of these apartments. It’s a long, but looking back on it all, unbelievable story.
My girlfriend and I were first thinking of getting a 2-bedroom apartment. When we wanted to pay our bill to Confucius Programs, we discovered the bill was much higher than we expected. Together we had to pay €3600 euros for the 2-bedroom apartment. Divided by the 4,5 months we were allowed to stay in the apartment, we had to pay €800/month. If we wanted to stay longer, we had to pay extra. We mailed to Jan van der Putten about this and on 23th of May 2008 he replied to us saying that “the prices had risen because of the Olympics” and that they were trying to do everything they could to lower the prices. So my girlfriend and I decided to take a 1-bedroom apartment to lower the costs. Now the total price became €2340, or €520/month. In Beijing we found out other students had paid €1839 to Confucius Programs for the exact same kind of apartment, which is about €410/month. We complaint about this to Jan van der Putten and we got the difference in money back. Marco van der Putten, who is the current boss of Confucius Programs and actually lives in Beijing, never replied to our mails. We later talked to some Chinese friends and teachers about this and all of them told us we were still being ripped of. The rent prices for the 1-bedroom apartments are roughly between 1500-1800 yuan/month, which at the time we paid Confucius Programs was about €150-180/month. The Olympics also had no effects on these prices.
But the story continues. On the 24th of November, after three months in Beijing, all ICS students had a chance to talk about their complaints to two Chinese employees of Confucius Programs (see paragraph below about the phone helpdesk). They explained to us that we actually paid 6 months rent and the average rent for the apartments is 2500 yuan/month. When we told them we were only allowed to live in the apartments for 4,5 months, they told us they needed time to prepare the apartments before our arrival. We also had to pay a deposit for the apartment (2500 yuan) and a commission to the real estate agent (also 2500 yuan), so the total average price for one 1-bedroom apartment was about 20.000 yuan. We still weren’t happy about this explanation. We thought the rent was still too high, Confucius Programs supposedly needed six (!) weeks to prepare the apartment and what about this deposit? So we (five out of the seven ICS students) sent a letter to Marco van der Putten to ask for a personal meeting. We didn’t ask Jan van der Putten for a meeting for he lives in the Netherlands. After one week we still hadn’t heard from Marco, so we started sending him e-mails. After the third e-mail he finally replied and after the fourth we had finally scheduled a meeting.
But this two hour meeting wasn’t with Marco although he was in the next room working (for more information about Marco during this meeting, see below), but with deputy general manager Eva Zhao. She gave us almost the same explanation we heard before, but this time she told us we paid rent for 5 months in stead of 6. She also said that for most apartments Confucius Programs had to buy extra furniture and appliances, although we never noticed anything new in our apartments. And apparently the deposit was something you “don’t get back in China”, which is completely untrue. When we told Eva we went to a real estate agent and we saw the same kind of 1-bedroom apartment for 2000 yuan/month and 2-bedroom apartments for 2500-2800 yuan/month, she told us we “must have been lucky” and that we “should come and work for Confucius Programs”.
When we booked our flight tickets in July, Jan van der Putten told us we were allowed to stay in the apartments till three days after the end of the semester, which was the 12th of January. Almost all of us booked our return tickets for this day. At the end of December we all received an e-mail from Confucius Programs, saying that we had to leave our apartments on the 9th. In case we wanted to stay longer, they had to arrange it with the owners of the apartments and we had to pay a “small fee”. Luckily, all of us who had decided to stay for another semester (this time not with ICS or Confucius Programs) had already rented a new apartment. As for my girlfriend and me, we immediately found a new apartment in the same compound as our first apartment that is twice as big, has no cockroaches, more furniture and the rent is 2400 yuan. Next to the rent, we had to pay a deposit to the owner, which, unlike Eva Zhao says, we get back at the end of the semester, and a commission to the real estate agency, both also 2400 yuan. If the value of the Chinese yuan would have been the same as when we paid our bill to Confucius Programs, this apartment would’ve cost us about €1900 for 7 months. With the current value of the Chinese yuan we’ve actually paid about €2100. To Confucius Programs we’ve paid €1839 for a 1-bedroom apartment for 4,5 months. Now their prices are even higher. It also should be mentioned that all other students who found a new apartment all paid much less and stayed in a much better apartment with more equipment.
ICS Culture and language program
We chose to do the language and culture program provided by the Institute of Chinese Studies (ICS), which is also run by Marco and Jan van der Putten, from September till December 2008. We each paid €2685. We haven’t got any complaints about the curriculum nor the teachers. The language teachers were all very professional, very motivated, very kind and showed much interest in their students. The culture program teachers were also very skilled and had much experience in the subjects they teach. However, I strongly believe the extra money you pay to ICS in comparison with the tuition fee for the language program of the Communication University of China (CUC) doesn’t create (much) extra value to your education. And there’s a big difference between these two tuition fees.
First it’s important to know the following. Our classroom was located on the campus of the CUC, as mentioned on the Confucius Programs website. We shared our building with many other foreign students who were also learning Chinese, but they were studying at the CUC. The CUC offers 6 Chinese language courses/levels, from beginners to experts. Their first level is almost identical to the language program provided by ICS for they have almost the same teachers and books. In fact, they start their Chinese class every day one hour earlier so they get to practice more (spoken) Chinese. The CUC asks for 8000 yuan/semester which at the moment is about €870 euros. Most ICS students who want to stay a second semester in Beijing transfer to the CUC, because after one semester in Beijing you’ve really only learned the basics. The CUC doesn’t offer a culture program, but once you’re in Beijing you’ll find out some cultural classes provided by ICS are a waste of time. You really need a lot of time to focus on your Chinese and you also get a lot of homework. So my girlfriend and I soon dropped the cultural lessons to have our afternoons free. The CUC also didn’t have any classes in the afternoon so their students could focus on their homework better.
It’s hard to prove that Confucius Programs or ICS makes profit out of their language and culture program. During our meeting, deputy general manager Eva Zhao tried to explain to us that Confucius Programs has very high costs because they are a private institution and that they also have to pay a very high rent for the classroom to CUC. This seemed fair to us. However, some things during the semester didn’t feel right. For example, the ICS tuition fee included the money for all the books. But at the start of the semester Confucius Programs tried to charge us extra for the culture books, which we refused to pay. We asked Eva Zhao about this during our meeting and she told us it was a deposit (although at first it really was a bill). She told us we could get back the deposit if we returned the books in good condition. But why pay a deposit for books that are included in the tuition fee and you already own? Also it felt really strange that we had the same teachers, books and even exams as the first Chinese level of the CUC, but we were in a different classroom. The only difference between ICS and CUC students as that we paid three times more. Of course it must be mentioned that they didn’t have any cultural lessons, however the CUC did offer several free lectures about Chinese culture on Thursday afternoon. The price for next semester per student is €3295, which is €610 more than our tuition fee. I have no idea what could cause an increase of this amount.
Other services Transfer from the airport
Confucius Programs offers a transfer from the airport when your arrive in Beijing. We paid €37 for this service, but for next semester Confucius Programs already charges €53. Every student chooses this service. Why wouldn’t you? It’s your first time in Beijing, taxi drivers don’t speak any English at all and how else will you get the key to your apartment of which you don’t even know the address yet? A couple of days before our departure, Confucius Programs sent us an e-mail saying what we had to do when we arrived at the airport:
“Never accept a taxi offered in the arrival hall: the driver will ask an exorbitant fee. In a regular taxi you pay only the indicated sum plus the toll fee of the airport expressway (10 yuan) and not one yuan more. But don’t worry, this scenario is merely theoretical.” (Welcome letter ICS, 20th of August 2008)
It’s really ironic Confucius Programs said this, cause you really only have to pay a taxi driver between 80 and 90 yuan to get from the airport to our apartment, which is about €8 to €10. Besides, some students arrive at the same time and share the transfer from the airport, but they all still have to pay the full €37 to Confucius Programs. Also, last year Confucius Programs completely forgot about one student. There was nobody to pick her up and she had to stay in a hotel for two weeks cause Confucius Programs hadn’t arranged an apartment for her. Before she came to Beijing she had sent several e-mails containing her flight information to Confucius Programs and she had already paid her bill including the rent for the apartment.
Confucius Programs offers three excursions on their website. At the time my girlfriend and I applied, they only offered one excursion: hiking at the Great Wall. We paid €49 per person, but now the price has already gone up to €54. In September we found out the trip wasn’t actually organised by Confucius Programs at all but by the CUC, and all foreign students could join this trip for the amount of zero (!) yuan. Each semester the CUC offers a couple of trips to their foreign students which are all for free. We also found out that you can do the same trip to the Great Wall with a famous travel agent near Tiananmen Square for about 160 yuan, which at the moment is about €17. Even illegal private drivers will take you to the Great Wall for a about 150 yuan per person. We didn’t choose to do any more excursions with Confucius Programs, but chances are that the other trips provided by them are also much more expensive than they really are.
Phone helpdesk & visa renewal assistence
The phone help desk is another vague item on the Confucius Programs website, as is the visa renewal assistance. Here’s the explanation: Confucius Programs is part of a small Dutch/Chinese company called Eyes on China, run by Marco van der Putten and his father Jan van der Putten. Two of their Chinese employees have a mobile phone and they’re called the phone help desk. One is in charge of your accommodation (for any problems with your apartment, you call her) and another of your education (any questions about the school, you call her). These employees are very friendly and helpful, but they look like they’re having a really hard time working for Eyes on China. They have to organise everything for the students and they have to work for the company as well. They’re also the ones who help you renew your visa. When we arrived in Beijing, one of these employees quit her job because of too much stress.
My girlfriend and I both paid for the phone help desk (€150/person) and the visa renewal assistance (€62/person). Other students however only paid for the phone help desk, the visa renewal assistance, both or neither, but all of us received the same service. There was no distinction between the ones who paid for these services and the ones who didn’t. In fact, none of us ever needed to call the phone helpdesk unless it was for a problem related to the apartment, like a broken washing machine or toilet.
When my girlfriend and I arrived in Beijing, our transfer from the airport gave us a booklet. On the first page of the booklet, it said: “The Helpdesk is one of the most important services of Confucius Programs. It can be reached 24 hours for any emergency.” One day our toilet was broken, but we weren’t able to call the phone helpdesk (at this time there was only one employee serving as the phone helpdesk) because she was on holiday. We tried all the phone numbers Confucius Programs had given us, but nobody ever picked up the phone. So we sent Jan van der Putten an e-mail. The next day (29 september 2008) he sent us back an e-mail with a phone number of Eva Zhao, who at this point we had never heard of. When we called her, she answered firmly that we weren’t supposed to call her cause she was on holiday. She told me to call the phone helpdesk. I explained her the issue after which she gave me the private mobile phone number of the employee responsible for the phone helpdesk. We felt sorry to disturb her cause we knew she also was on holiday. Luckily none of us ever had an accident or worse when the phone helpdesk wasn’t available. The phone helpdesk for next semester is now €165 euros and the visa renewal assistance €68.
Our meeting with Marco van der Putten, boss of Confucius Programs and ICS
It weren’t only these stories and numbers that made me, my girlfriend and our fellow students angry with Confucius Programs, it was also the way they, and particularly Marco van der Putten, treated us and communicated (or better say “not communicated”) with us during the semester.
We were actually supposed to see Marco only once at the welcome dinner at the start of the semester (and maybe a second time at the closing ceremony at the end of the semester). He was there, made a little speech, wished us good luck at the end of the dinner (which, by the way, we also had to pay for and Confucius Programs also made profit out of) and said goodbye. The rest of the entire semester, we were only supposed to see the two Chinese employees responsible for the phone helpdesk. But because we had so many complaints and these employees couldn’t give us the answers we wanted, we really pushed for a meeting with Marco. It took him a week to reply to our letter, which we asked one of his employees to deliver for us, and several e-mails. He finally promised us a meeting, so in the afternoon of the 4th of December five out seven ICS students went to his office to have a talk.
To our surprise, the meeting was held by deputy general manager Eva Zhao while Marco was sitting in the next room chatting on the phone. During the meeting we kept asking her when Marco would join us. She said he was really busy and he would join us soon. The discussion with Eva went on for a very long time, so after two hours we became agitated that Marco still hadn’t come to see us or at least greet us. So we firmly asked Eva to call for Marco, who was still just two meters away from us in the next room and without doubt could overhear the entire conversation. Finally Eva called for him, at which in an instant Marco appeared halfway in the doorway, looking angry and sounding really aggressive. He kept saying: “So what do you want? What do you want?”, still standing halfway in the doorway like he didn’t even want to enter the room. My girlfriend said something about that the fact that we came to see him to talk about our complaints, at which he replied: “So who are you? Are you one of our students? What are you doing here anyway?” At which I replied: “She’s one of your seven (ICS) students. You met her at the welcome dinner, if you can’t even remember that”. I think it’s fair to summarise that our short meeting with Marco didn’t go anywhere. After about four very tense minutes, Marco just left. He didn’t even say goodbye or try to come to a solution with us. Looking back on it afterwards, we’re just really surprised how a man in this position could be so unprofessional. There was no reason whatsoever for him to treat us this way, and suppose there was such a reason, a man in his position would try to avoid showing this kind of behaviour. After that meeting, we never saw or heard of him again, not even at the closing ceremony of the semester.
If you’re interested in Chinese or Chinese culture, I would really recommend to go to Beijing for at least one semester. It’s a great city with many wonderful possibilities for foreign students to explore. But of course it’s really difficult to organise your stay if you don’t know anything or anybody in Beijing. I never had a problem with paying Confucius Programs extra to organise everything for me, but I wish to receive an adequate service, a straight forward communication and equal treatment for every student according to the fees they pay. Confucius Programs offered none of these. They charge a very high price, offer a poor service (mainly due to bad organisation) and worst of all, they lied to us on several occasions. They also claimed that the previous semester they didn’t receive any complaints from their students. We’ve talked to some of these students who actually did have complaints very similar to ours.
According to deputy general manager Eva Zhao, Marco van der Putten and his father Jan want their students to come to Beijing and study for the lowest price possible. Eva even said that Marco and Jan care deeply about their students and that Marco puts at least one full month’s work every year into Confucius Programs. Personally, next to his presence at the welcome dinner, I haven’t noticed him putting one second into Confucius Programs. Every time I sent him an e-mail, he never responded, or he had one of his employees contact me. At first I had a lot of contact however with his father Jan van der Putten, but only before I paid my bill to Confucius Programs, which was one month before the start of the semester. From that day onward, all my communication with Confucius Programs was with one of their Chinese employees.
I’m confident to conclude that Marco and Jan van der Putten don’t want you to travel and study in Beijing for the lowest price possible, in contrary to what they promise on their website. They try to maximise their income and keep the costs as low as possible. I think they’re also aware that most of their students don’t pay for their studies in Beijing themselves, but that their parents pay the bill. And parents, of course, don’t mind the costs as long as their children can travel safely, have a full experience and an organisation like Confucius Programs to fall back on. I can fully understand this, but money doesn’t always equal good and secure service. I also believe that Marco and Jan van der Putten don’t care very much about their students either. I’ve only seen Jan once, this was at an information meeting long before I came to China. We were also only supposed to see Marco once, at the welcome dinner, where he made a speech, wished us good luck and said goodbye. Back then we didn’t know that three months later in his meeting room he would be talking to us in a very aggressive tone when we just wanted to talk to him about our complaints. If Marco and Jan would truly be interested in helping students, I think they would try to get some pleasure out of meeting and talking to their students during the semester. The only ones who seemed interested in our stories were our teachers and the two Chinese employees working for Confucius Programs. Jan van der Putten even didn’t come to say hello when he was at a reception organised by the Dutch embassy where four of his ICS students were also present.
This blog is about my personal experience with Confucius Programs, but other people are always welcome to react by putting a message on this blog. I don’t claim that every student who travels with Confucius Programs has a bad year in China, quite the opposite actually. You’ll have a terrific time, but you won’t get an adequate service for the large price you pay Confucius Programs. However, I am certain that me and my girlfriend aren’t the only ones who have had bad experiences with this organisation. Almost all students of my semester had complaints about the price and the services of Confucius Programs, and some stories I’ve heard from students of previous semesters are truly amazing, but they’re not mine to tell. I hope that this blog offered some help to some students in their decision on how (not) to get to China and I wish those who decide to go to China a wonderful time. I promise you, it will be a life changing experience!
In case you don’t find another organisation to help you with your stay in Beijing, here are some tips. Almost every university in Beijing has some kind of Chinese language course and many foreign students from all over the world attend these. I can only speak for the CUC, but there were about one hundred foreign students from all over the world studying Chinese. So you’re definitely not on your own. What you need to do is contact these universities. Get some information about their language course and choose the school you like the most. They should be able to help you with the rest. You’ll probably have to stay in one of their dorms where they have private and shared rooms. If you don’t like this, you can always move to an apartment in the neighbourhood afterwards. I saw plenty of foreign students at the CUC do it, and they all managed fine. Of course, you sometimes have to be a bit patient if you want something done in China, but that’s all part of the cultural experience. Good luck!